Foiled One: Sunday, February 25

Perkily, she greets him. “Hi, Haakon!”

As is his way, he extends a quiet hello.

Then, at loose ends for the few minutes until class starts, she notices someone else she can greet.

“Are you Haakon’s mom?” she asks, extending her hand towards me. As I nod, she adds, “I’m Mrs. Rebecca King.” We shake hands.

Mrs. Rebecca King! So the giggly, bouncy, upbeat, prone-to-yelping, always-bringing-the-fun lady in Paco’s fencing class has a name? And it’s not “Caitlyn Marie”?

Now this is interesting.

I’ve always liked that she’s in the class, one of the few females, definitely the only one who doesn’t read manga, for her energy is a perfect counterpoint to the male “I love weaponry” ponytailed vibe of the rest of the participants. Even more, I’ve always been glad when she and Paco are partners in a bout; he relaxes with her because she’s chatty and so clearly having a good time. When they are facing off, he smiles and talks during the lulls.

You make my beloved kid smile and talk, you are my very special Mrs. Rebecca King forever.

I like her even more once the introductions are over — because what she wants to say is “Haakon is such a nice boy” and “He is so polite” and “He’s a gentle giant. I actually have to tell him ‘It’s okay. You can stab Mrs. King!'”

Why, thank you for the nice words about my kid, Mrs. Rebecca King. Do you perhaps need a kidney? A piggyback out to your car after class? A pair of matching French braids woven into your hair by freckled hands?

In return, I tell her the things I’ve long thought: that she brings great energy to the third floor of the YMCA every Sunday afternoon and changes the feel of the whole class, that I’m always so happy when she and Paco are paired off, that she has a gift of sunshine.

Life policy: say the nice things out loud to the people. The potential effects are boundless.

As we continue to talk, I learn that this slip of a woman is mother to five children, all grown and gone. My astonished reaction is genuine. Seriously, Mrs. Rebecca King is built like a figure skater working on her triple loop, and she appears to be about 31. When I tell her this, she tries to shuck off my observations as thin compliments, but I’m serious. If quizzed, I would have written in ink that I believe she’s 31.

Clearly, upbeat energy keeps skin unlined and eyes bright.

So her kids range in age from 26 down to 19, which means she bore five kids in seven years. Yes, it was crazy, she assures me, but now that they’re gone, she misses it — even though having gotten through the intense years of motherhood means “I eat sometimes now…and I get to do things like taking fencing!”

When I ask her how she came to enroll in fencing classes, her answer, as with everything about her, is easy. “I just always wanted to. Always. And now I can. The only people in my life who were surprised when I announced I had signed up were my mom and brother. Everybody else saw it coming.”

It’s almost time for her to go out onto the wooden floor and start warming up with footwork, almost time for me to start running on the track that loops the wooden floor. But first, she wants to tell me where her kids and their spouses live — from Alaska to Ohio — and I want Byron, who’s just arrived, to say hi.

The rhythm changes. We are almost done, and the introduction of new information is replaced by reiterations of previous niceties. At some point as we wind down, Mrs. Rebecca King says, referring to herself, “Hey, not bad for an Amish lady, right?”

And then she’s gone, in her white jacket with the strap laced between her legs, with her slightly wild hair springing until her face mask tames it, having skipped out to the middle of the wooden floor.

Twenty feet away, I tuck in my earbuds and fire up a podcast. We had a quick moment, we two moms on the third floor, but now we each focus on our own business.

For the next hour, I run, and I run, and I run, circling the clanking foils, circumscribing the changing pairings of the fencers, drawing a line with my feet around their thrusts and parries. I move my body, grin at my husband, answer a few messages, listen to stories, and think, my brain circling and circumscribing and drawing lines:

“Excuse me. An Amish lady?”

After class, I ask Byron what he thinks, and he posits she’s more a Mennonite or some other offshoot that isn’t quite Amish but is still “sect-ular” in nature. He’s noticed previously that sometimes a couple younger girls in slightly old-fashioned dresses, tights, and shoes accompany Mrs. Rebecca King, sitting on chairs during class and looking at their phones. Paco knows that she’s a teacher at a Christian school. But still my brain circles.

Life policy: say the questions out loud to the people. The potential effects are boundless.

Thus, by the end of the hour, I have readied myself to approach her again and say, “I just have to ask: you were sort of joking earlier when you said you are an Amish lady, but you sort of weren’t. Do you mind if I ask about that?”

But I’m out of luck.

Mrs. Rebecca King changes into her winter wear while talking to a teenage boy from the class; their conversation is intent, and she moves rapidly as she buttons her coat. She dashes — always, she dashes! — to the top of the staircase, and before she starts pattering down, the boy calls out to her: “God be with you.”

“And God be with you,” she replies to the round-faced red-head whose brothers and pastor father are packing up their gear nearby.

They are Godsmacked, and I am gobsmacked. Are we the only heathens in the fencing mix? Did we stumble into a homeschooling extracurricular? Should these Good People be stabbing each other on a Sunday? Have I ever in the past year dropped a 20-pound weight on my foot while doing bicep curls and inadvertently yelled “FUCK”? Do I owe anyone an apology? Should I follow my impulses in this moment and dodge over to Mrs. Rebecca King to say, “My regrets if I’ve ever yelled a swearsie, and do you have a bonnet with dangling strings?”

Ah, but she’s gone, Mrs. Rebecca King is, gone down the stairs, gear tucked into her arms, coat buttons askew, hair flying. She missed class last week because she lives “due north,” out in the country, and her husband hadn’t plowed them out in time for her to get into town. This week, she had him prepared and on the job: she wanted to go to her fencing class. Good as his word, the father of her five children cleared the snow so she could get out —

his wife, that mother, this yelping, happy foil-wielder–

so she could attend her class —

the class she always wanted to take —

from the time she was a young girl until now, when she looks 31 —

and all along the way, it appears one thing about this open, light-hearted woman has always been true:

God has been with her.

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Seven Goods: Saturday, February 24

Things Farmers Like About February

My sister-in-law, Erin, her husband, Ben, and their daughter, Allia, live on and run an organic farm in central Minnesota — selling Community Supported Agriculture shares to people in their community, providing vegetables to local colleges and Twin Cities’ school districts, and committing their values to their daily work.

And it’s hard work, this business of raising food with a brave spirit of entrepreneurship. The rhythms of their lives are dictated by the seasons, with heartbreak as likely as success. 

As they visit us this weekend, I asked if they could articulate the best things about being farmers when it comes to a month like February, a time of year that can feel dark, dull, and eternal. 

  1. They love having more time — for things like yoga, reading, and playing. Time to just BE with each other is golden.
  2. Erin really appreciates having psychic and emotional space from deadlines.
  3. Allia likes that since they have land, they have some small hills that were really fun for sledding this time of year when she was younger. Now that she’s 7, though, they need go go off the farm to find hills that are exciting.
  4. Ben loves February for skiing and chickadees and super-warm sun.
  5. Erin enjoys this time of year because it’s when she can actually reach the end of her to-do lists. Allia comments, “You always have lists, Mama.”
  6. The whole family appreciates this time of year because, as Allia notes, “Papa is around more,” and she loves doing bed tricks and tickle time games where she lays down on top of her dad, and together they create lifts and postures — sometimes he does her hair while she dangles upside down from his feet.
  7. And finally, both Ben and Erin acknowledge that February is the time of year when they are rejuvenated enough to get ambitious. For vegetable growers, no matter how busy or crazy the year has been, by February they have a new idea that they would have said “NO!” to in November. For them this year, that means they’ve just decided to go ahead and grow 4,000 more pounds of cantaloupes this year.

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Five in Five: Friday, February 23

Things Virginia Has Written on Slips of Paper and Dropped into the Gratitude Bowl in the Narthex of the Congregational Church

My dear friend Virginia has jotted down her thanks for these humble things:

1. See-through plastic bags — she can see what’s in them without taking things apart and doesn’t have to empty the contents just to find out it’s not what she’s looking for

2. Bendy straws — try drinking with a regular straw if you’re bedridden

3. The natural colors of our environment — she is so glad grass is green, not blue, so glad the sky is blue, not pink, and so happy water has no color when it could be yellow — and that it’s not sticky

4. Nose Hairs – after she lost her hair from chemo, one day she saw sun shine at about 4 p.m. onto her dark wood floors; in that moment, she saw motes floating around and landing onto their floors, and she realized that these are in the air that we breath, that with every intake, we are inhaling these motes, that they are going into our lungs where they can cause no end of problems. With her domestic world thusly illuminated, Virginia appreciated very deeply it’s the nose hairs that filter the motes. Now, with gratitude in her heart, she calls them the Divine Sifters

5. Not yet submitted for fear of giving offense — pantyliners

What would you write down and put into the Gratitude Bowl in the narthex?

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One and Forever: Thursday, February 22

It’s a candy cigarette, so calm your tits.

It matters to this story that dusk is creeping around the edges, and thick, quiet snow is falling slowly, slowly from the sky, accumulating into a desert of white dunes outside the large picture window behind my back.

She’s talking, my great pal Virginia is, as she lies on the couch to my left, her feet elevated to help the fluids drain from her leg that swells each day from edema caused by the tumor that has inhabited in her pelvis for twenty years. Every day, to get through the day, her slight body is mobbed, swabbed, bundled, padded, and hooked — with nephrostomy tubes and bags, an under-skin pain pump the size of a hockey puck, gauze, tape, hooks, back-up systems. She is swaddled by the accoutrements of unbudgeable cancer, living graciously and gratefully in constant pain.

Very few people live an example.

Virginia lives an example.

Despite the lashings of medical equipment that snake beneath her clothes, Virginia’s brain roams wide and free. I’m taking trips with her brain now, as she talks over there on the couch, because we are catching stories for her next book, trying to capture them before she has a colostomy in a couple weeks, the next procedure aimed at improving quality of life. Writing is difficult business when sitting is often impossible, but if she can lie with her legs up, she can talk, and I can type.

So far, she’s told me seven-and-a-half stories — five of them about a neighbor boy she fostered, one about injustice on the playground, another about a woman on a park bench in Germany,. By way of a breather, we’ve let ourselves get derailed from a story about the day she met her future in-laws after I’ve asked some follow-up questions.


Now we’re talking about Richard, the youngest of her four brothers, the one I sometimes forget about because he was gone before I met her.

She was a senior in high school when he was born, but despite — maybe because of — that age difference, they felt a genuine connection. He loved writing, wanted to get into film, got a job with a kind of documentary company that at some point did a commercial involving a wallaby and luggage. Virginia remembers being so envious that Richard got to be on set with a wallaby, and she didn’t.

Not too long after Virginia returned home from a trip to Europe, her brother Dan called her to tell her that Richard, then 26, had been driving to Jackson Hole from Minnesota with a friend, for a vacation. Near Billings, in central Montana, Richard fell asleep at the wheel, and then awakening with a jolt, he over-corrected, and the car flipped and rolled into a ditch. With no seat belt on, he was thrown from the car and died within three minutes. His friend lived.

Later, after the immediate worst of it, after an undertaker named Mr. Graves readied Richard for permanent rest, Virginia awoke in the night, her heart racing. Panicked by the atrial fibrillation, she went to the emergency room, clutching her chest, and told the doctor, “It feels like my heart is broken.”

It was.

After Richard’s death, as his mother and siblings sifted through his belongings, Virginia claimed some treasures to keep her brother close: a pottery serving bowl which she had gifted to him, reclaimed now; a pair of his wool socks, eventually worn to nubs; a blue-and-green plaid flannel shirt, also worn to threads, and his belt, which became her default belt, her go-to, the only one she has worn now, as her own life winds down, these past two years.

Thirty-seven years have passed since Richard died, and his belt is with her as she dies by millimeters.

And so it matters to this story that darkness filters through the glass, soft snow sifts to blanket the ice-locked ground.

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Five in Five: Wednesday, February 21

Five Things about Countries Beginning with “E” that Allegra Told Us During a Car Ride to a Race in Wisconsin:
She Was Reading from One of Her Beloved Travel Books, Both of Which She Bought with a Barnes & Noble Gift Card from Byron’s Great-Uncle

1. One of Egypt’s trademarks is incessant honking
2. Egypt is the driest country in Africa
3. In El Salvador, there’s a town named Alegria
4. In Estonia, there’s a sport called “kiiking” which has people standing on a swing and attempting to make a full 360-degree loop
5. Ethiopia sounds interesting (her personal opinion) because it has churches and crocodiles

Now, what travel fun fact can you tell our girl who is thirsty to know it all and who is, not incidentally, as cute as a baby Adélie penguin (which breed from October to February on shores around the Antarctic continent and build rough nests of stones)?

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A Lifetime in Twenty-Seven Minutes: Monday, February 20

The letter sat on the kitchen counter for a few days, a visual reminder to call the insurance company and find out if I am covered for this new 3D mammography.

It also sat there for a few days as I calmed the impulse to mark the thing up — “The third sentence here is a comma splice because you’ve hung two independent clauses together with only a comma, which isn’t a strong enough form of punctuation. Yes, I realize you get confused when there’s a conjunctive adverb like ‘however’ in the middle, but you are a major hospital, a professional organization, so try hiring someone who states in his interview, ‘I have a real passion for knowing a complete sentence when I see one, ‘k? AND AS LONG AS I HAVE YOU HERE, YOU NEED TO STOP USING TWO SPACES AFTER A PERIOD BECAUSE THE ERA OF MONOTYPE IS WELL AND OVER. LET ME WELCOME YOU TO 2018, A TIME WHEN PEOPLE BOTHER THEMSELVES TO RETRAIN MUSCULAR MEMORY.”

It also also sat there for a few days because I needed to get elbow-deep in chocolate for a good long while before I could place a phone call to an insurance company.

But finally, it was time. I wanted to get the appointment set, so, my mood stabilized by a square of Trader Joe’s Swiss Dark Chocolate Bar with Whole Hazelnuts, I grabbed the handset for the landline, squinted intensely at the tiny print on the back of my insurance card, and dialed the number for Customer Service.

Four seconds later, rattled, I reactively hurled the handset across the stovetop when the automated woman’s voice shouted into my ear.

Why ya gotta be so fricking loud, Automated Voice? Jeezus.

Scrambling to get the phone back in hand, lest I miss a command, I heard the tail end of Loud Lady’s first request. I needed to verbally identify the role I occupy as a caller: policy holder, family member, medical institution, frazzled wincer, joyful prancer, or unhinged tweeter. 

“Policy holder,” I enunciated carefully.

“I heard you say” — Loud Lady caught a mechanical breath — “policy holder. Is this correct?”

“YES.” I wasn’t a good little girl all through elementary school for nothing. 

Next, I told Loud Lady my name, gave her my policy number minus any letters, clued her into my birth date HEY DOLL GIMME A SHOUT COME MARCH 25TH, and then, just when I thought I was coasting smoothly towards connection with a human being, LL got assertive and asked me to state my reason for calling: “For example, you can say ‘Benefits.’ Or you can say ‘Coverage.'” 

Uh, LL? Could I have a few more options, maybe one that uses the words “mammogram” and “3D”?

Flummoxed, quivery under pressure, I gulped out “Coverage!”

“I heard you say ‘Coverage,'” bitch told me. “Is that correct?”

“YES, BITCH, YES,” I confirmed.

“I heard you call me ‘Bitch,'” LL charged. “Is that correct?”

Oy. If LL wasn’t in my corner, I’d never find out if she’d pay for photos revealing heretofore obscured nooks and crannies of my breastuals. Softening my tone, I responded. “No, that is not correct. You heard me say ‘bewitch’ because that’s what your voice does to me, loud lady whom I am going to call Mavis! I said BE-WITCH.”

Mavis was one unforgiving robotic bitch. 

“I’m sorry. I don’t understand. Please state the purpose of your call or say the words ‘Main Menu.'” 

Exasperated, busted, ready for a complete reset, I wheezed: “Main Menu.”

“I’m sorry. I couldn’t hear you,” Mavis intoned dispassionately. 

“MAIN MENU, for fuck’s sake!”

“I’m sorry. I heard you say ‘for fuck’s sake.’ Is that correct?”

Some minutes later, after a weepy apology and an order of Shari’s Berries sent directly to Mavis’ Inbox, I was returned to the Main Menu.

“Please state your role as a caller: policy holder, family member, medical institution, dog-housed swearer, revved-up carer, double-dog darer…”

“Policy holder!” I interrupted Mavis’ recitation.

“I heard ‘Other.’ Is that correct?”

“No. Paaawwwwlllissssyy hoooollldddderrr.”

A supressed giggle in her voice, Mavis asked, “I heard ‘Family Member.’ Is that correct?”

“No. Pol. icy. Hol. Der.”

Dickin’ around with me must have been getting boring, for Mavis heard me correctly that time and moved to the next steps in the script. I stated my policy number, all 15 digits of it, leaving out the letters. I told her my birth date HEY HARRIDAN MAYBE DON’T GIMME A SHOUT COME MARCH 25TH, and then, dammit, she asked me to state my reason for calling. “For example, you can say ‘Benefits.’ Or you can say ‘Coverage.'”

Those were just two examples, right? She had to be programmed to accept responses other than those two. Maybe I’d failed last time because I got scared. Maybe this whole thing was as easy as me actually stating the reason for my call.

Digging deep into to my solar plexus for courage, I articulated carefully and prayed to the ceiling: “Does my policy cover 3D mammograms?

For a second — a long second — a second packed with potential and hope — there was silence. And then. Her voice, thick-sounding for some reason — WAS SHE CHEWING AN OVERSIZE CHOCOLATE-COVERED STRAWBERRY?? — responded.

“I’m sorry. That is not a valid request. Good-bye.”

What?? Good-bye? Stunned, I stood motionless, staring at the blur of my insurance card. Just like that? She was gone? What happened to the second chances promised by Main Menu? What about our history together? What about the times I’d read my policy number, without letters, to her? Did it all mean nothing?

Dejected, defeated, discouraged — my spirit teeming with “D” words — I set the handset onto the counter, slid the laminated insurance card towards my wallet, and laid my forehead onto the butcher block. All I’d wanted was to talk to a real person to ask a straightforward question.

Actually, that wasn’t true. I hadn’t wanted to call in the first place, and I didn’t want to have to ask if I was eligible for the best-possible care. I’m a fair bit of a socialist even on my most-conservative days, so my vision of health care is one where it’s a given that every citizen is equally covered by modern medicine’s umbrella, and also, I’m locked into spiraling distress about half our country’s blind devotion to guns over kids, and one other thing, Mavis, you loud-mouthed dominatrix, I needed you not to hang up on me today because gerrymandering border wall sex trafficking planned parenthood funding net neutrality rohingya genocide

and what if I had been calling with a mental health question, Mavis? What if I’d been teetering on an edge, yet all you cared about was stuffing another berry into your mouth, you flimsy instrument of mechanized compassion?

Wow. I was never going to get a mammogram at this rate, and I always get a mammogram. Because, see, I was born from an amniotic sac loaded with luck. So I get to be someone who has a yearly mammogram, someone who has the option to get a 3D mammogram, someone who has a kitchen and a phone and a counter. 

My forehead still supporting the weight of my psyche, I tried to regroup — to stop feeling so overwhelmed by Mavis and all the ills of the world that I froze, passive, into a stance of inaction. 

Then, opening my eyes, I saw them. Hanging there. Dangling from my ribcage, winking at the floorboards. 

My breasts.

Oh, yeah. That’s what this was about. Making sure my body isn’t currently tracking the same direction as my grandma’s, my great-aunt’s, those women who came before me. Right-o. 

Straightening my spine, I pulled my shoulder blades back and looked down at the weighted flesh of my chest, the two skin sacks my lifelong companions, and remembered: I gotta be okay if I want to help anything else be okay.

Grabbing the handset once again, I picked up the insurance card. Squinting at the tiny numbers for Customer Service, I punched them in. As the line began to ring, I moved the receiver away from my ear BECAUSE THAT MAVIS, SHE’S A SHOUTER. 

One ring.


And just before the third, I heard a voice

a real voice —

belonging to a real woman —

and she wondered how she could help me.

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400 Noodles and Four Hours: Monday, February 19

I knew it was coming, so I’d had a couple days to brace myself.

Mostly, my strategy was to hide upstairs, answer the occasional question, and deliberately pour my soul into a zen acceptance of chaos.

Actually, now that I reread that previous sentence, I think I might ask Byron to stitch a version of it into a sampler with the heading “Tips for Parenting Teens.”

So I knew Allegra and two friends had decided to make dinner at our house Sunday night and that our girl would be calling me after she was done with work and when they got to the grocery store, to ask about items we might already have in stock at the house. Because she is well raised, it was a text, not a call, that came through first. Cake pans. Eggs. Spinach. Tomatoes, Beets. Well, this sounded promising. I knew the plan was to make tricolor pasta from scratch, but BEETS? Nice, ladies. Nice.

A few minutes later, my phone rang. It was Leggy. Stabbing wildly at the screen, I managed to refuse her call as I tried to answer it. Calling her back, I opened with, “So, yeah, I have no idea how to answer my phone. Like, truly. I was trying to answer it. As of tonight, my record for failing to answer all calls is intact.”

Oh, she felt me. Why should anyone know how to answer a phone when phone calls are the devil’s work? We shared a silent moment of mutual understanding that felt like a warm hug. Phone calls. Fuck ’em.

Anyhow, did we have cocoa? 

And so it went. A short time later, I heard the girls come into the house, a rustle of bags and giggles in the kitchen. Adhering to my planned strategy, I stayed upstairs and let them figure themselves out.

Except, then, after a relatively quiet twenty minutes, the top of Allegra’s head rose on the staircase. “Where’s the pasta maker?” In the basement pantry.

Some bit later, I heard the squeaky crank of the pasta maker’s handle. Dang, but something in me is wired towards squeaky cranks (see: the boyfriend of my twenties). I wanted to go down. Take a peek at how it was going. Watch them crank. But nah. If this was their deal, it should be their deal. 

As I kept myself busy at the computer instead of tromping down to ask dull questions and provide overly perky commentary to their actions, I thought about the teenagery-ness of wanting to make three different pastas from scratch when those same chefs had never, say, made spaghetti from a box and red sauce out of a jar all on their own. Although I had tried earlier to suggest there’s no pride lost in opening a box of noodles, my words fell on 17-year-old ears. “But we want to make it from scratch, and we want three colors! Also, we want to make a cake!” From a mix? “From scratch!”

I commend the attitude and the values behind thoughtful, non-instant cooking. Yet, at the same time, I was amused by the desire to take on big goals before mastering smaller building blocks. Although I was chuckling at their ambition, I admired them for it — ah, that glorious stretch of years when anything seems possible because everything is still possible, so why not go big? That confident mindset is something that life’s vagaries can erode; no need for me to act as an instrument of deflation. Hell, when I was about 15, having never before cooked a reasonable pan of brownies, I told my mom I wanted to make a Baked Alaska because I couldn’t believe ice cream could go in the oven. To her eternal credit, my mom’s answer was, “Let’s do it.”

Baked Alaska is really cool, y’all. I haven’t made it since I was 15. But I know it’s cool because I lived in a house where ideas were welcome. 

In addition to confidence and ambition, these teen girls have humor. When Allegra first announced they would be making dinner, she laughed when I replied, “So we should plan on eating around 10, then?” 

“Well, last time we did this, it did take us five hours, so yeah, it will be late. You should make some eggs for Paco so he doesn’t get crabby,” she nodded. “But, I mean, last time we did make homemade fettucine and sauce and noodles and soup and salad and bread and pie, so it was understandable that it took us five hours.”

Please, for the love of James Beard, girls, stick to tricolor pasta and a cake. Don’t go getting notions about a protein, I prayed.

In the kitchen, the squeaks and shouts continued. Then, through the banister railings, Allegra’s head rose again. “Do we have more flour?” Yes, downstairs in the basement pantry, by the Fischer-Price village.

Although I’d been following my strategies like a boss, a look at the screen told me it was Shot of Scotch O’Clock. Could I maybe contribute to the evening’s memories by being the mom who only showed her face when in search of booze?

Bravely, I headed down.

Well, now. Things were happening. Allegra was separating threads of tomato noodles while Natalie worked spinach dough through the machine. Elizabeth was on frosting duty, except

“Mom, do we have more butter somewhere?”

Yes, down in the basement in the freezer. Here, let me get it.

A moment later, a pound of frozen butter in hand, I suggested they might want to soften a stick in the microwave on low power — or, alternately, “Jam it into your armpit, honey.” 

“Hey,” Allegra said. “That’s what I did earlier, and it worked great!”

Leaving them to the softening, I headed upstairs.

Forty-five minutes later, the pasta maker still cranking, I decided a glass of wine might be in order, what with dinner being a distant hope. This time when I got to the kitchen, Natalie decided her arm was tired, so Allegra took over; in return, Natalie tucked the stick of butter under the front of her shirt, nesting it at her waistline. Within minutes, her chi had made the stuff malleable. In one corner, beet pasta covered the counter. In another, chocolate frosting came to life. Duties were traded and handed off, and somehow, synergistically, the food was happening.

Back upstairs, I recalled the time my sister, some other neighbor girls, and I decided to make a special summer lunch for some of the neighborhood boys. After finding them at Mike’s house, we told them to come to our house in an hour for some good food. Minutes later, having scrambled down the hill into our kitchen, we had water boiling for a box of mac ‘n cheese and a pan heating for hamburgers.

Mostly what I remember about that afternoon with “strange” boys sitting at our dining room table is that I felt special — that we girls had presented ourselves as capable and domestic…in some bizarre hope of gaining a boyfriend? — that our efforts proved our value.

Because life is beautiful, a dynamic thing allowing for change and growth, I would, thirty-odd years later, accept a social media friend request from the lead boy on Hamburger Day and then, less than a week later, unfriend him, thinking, “I can’t stand you, and I can’t see why I need to pretend otherwise.”

Eventually, Allegra’s voice rose up the staircase again, this time with welcome news, especially for her brother who had been on a school bus at 6:45 a.m. that morning, heading to a robotics meet in another city. Even though he was dubious about the potential of tricolor pasta, he was, at 10:30 p.m., both hungry and ready to sleep. 

“The pasta’s ready!”


“Stay on your bed, kid,” I told Paco. “I’ll bring you a small bowl, and if you like it, you can have more.”

By the time I got to the kitchen, the girls were loading bowls for themselves, apologizing about the noodles (“They just taste like pasta, not like spinach or beets or tomatoes”); apologizing about the sauce, which they had made up once they realized they were missing Alfredo ingredients and had refused my offer of a frozen red sauce (“It’s kind of, um, weird. We just put Parmesan, butter, cream, and some leftover tomatoes together”); exclaiming about how much pasta they’d made when I told them I could boil up some more if they wanted to finish what was in the pot (their idea of “a lot of pasta” was modest); wondering where they should eat (the kitchen being inhospitable due to every possible dish and utensil having been used during the cooking, the dining room table full of Paco’s toothpick bridge he’s making for science class); and thinking it could be good to watch some DVR-ed Olympic skiing while they ate.

After a quick primer on how to navigate through Hulu using our Fire stick remote, I left them to enjoy their tiny bowls of noodles, big pieces of cake, and admiration of the skills required by biathlon. Back in the kitchen, I tried to keep my sigh inaudible. They. had. trashed. the. place.

I had known it would be a mess, but they had exceeded my expectations. Were I a set designer for a sitcom, and were it my job to stage a helter-skelter kitchen scene because — haha! — Dad had tried to cook, I could not have come up with what these three high school girls accomplished organically.

They had noticed the mess. They had said they’d clean up. They needed to be the ones who cleaned up.

But still. As long as I was there, before I scooped noodles for the boy and me, I just had to put a twist tie on that open bag of confectioner’s sugar, tuck it into the drawer, put those oven mitts away, collect the five empty butter wrappers, and stick the flour container back in its nook.

There. I did ten things. The rest was up to the girls.

From the next room, the easy, happy energy of three young women — longtime teammates — watching skiing and eating food they had made “just because” washed into the kitchen. I tucked and threw and stuck, and I was hungry, and I was afraid of the clean-up they would do, but, oh, I felt complete.

In every dream of my future back before I knew the shape my life would take, the kitchen was filled with light and noise, filled with the cacophony of friends coming together around food and communal creation.

As I walked up the stairs with pasta and cake ready to hand to the sleepy 15-year-old, I thought about my childhood friend, Lisa. She lived next door and was a constant playmate and companion, often staying with our family when her parents would take junkets to Vegas to gamble. Even as adolescents, Lisa and I would sleep head-to-foot on my waterbed, and during the days when we were hungry, and there were no moms around to feed us, we would make our favorite snack.

Pouring one cup of white rice into a pot, followed by two cups of water, we’d count down the twenty minutes until we could pull our snack of cooked fluff off the electric burner. Setting it on the floor in the middle of the kitchen — a dishtowel folded beneath it to keep the rug from melting — we’d add chunks of butter and generous shakes of salt to our work.

Then, leaning our heads over the pot, foreheads knocking, we’d dig our forks into the mounds of white grains, murmuring “Yummmm” to each other until the whole thing was gone.

All they did was take a notion to make a meal together.

What they achieved was so much more.

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Eight in Some: Sunday, February 18

A prompt for today’s post:

Recently, the chief curator at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City rejected the White House’s request to loan Vincent van Gogh’s Landscape With Snow painting, instead offering to lend Maurizio Cattelan’s functional, solid gold toilet sculpture titled America. If you could borrow any work of art from a museum or collection in the world, what would you choose? 

First off, I giggle at the Guggenheim’s statement in counter-offering the gold toilet sculpture to the Trump White House. 

Beyond that, well, this prompt got me thinking for days. Coincidentally, just after I started compiling thoughts and ideas about the art that appeals to me to the point that I’d like to have it in my house for an extended period, the Obamas’ official portraits were released. I am not going to ask for either of those portraits on loan, though, as a huge part of their importance is having those powerful black faces — created by black artists — hanging in public spaces. 

Sooooo…if I could have some art on loan, what might I request?

Immediately after I started pondering this question, I knew a couple of things: I tend to favor close-up portraits of people’s faces, and I am partial to textiles and fiber arts. Of course, my taste is not limited to these things, but my heart does thump visibly in my sternum for them, which explains why the first artist to come to mind was Cayce Zavaglia, whose portraits of friends and family give life to my Instagram, whose embroidery technique stops all my traffic, whose display of the “verso” of each piece serves as a metaphor for what it is to be human. An article published by Studio International notes:

The artist’s proclivity for portraying people she trusts as beautiful, strong and timeless found a counterpart in the embroideries’ reverse, where facial features become obscured by unwanted threads and knots. Zavaglia found an inspiring metaphor in the discovery of this reverse image, as it indicates, for her, the unseen and unpolished side of the human psyche. Apart from opening up the reverse side of her embroidered paintings to the viewer by displaying them on stands in the manner of sculpture, Zavaglia also found a way back to painting by focusing on this reverse side and documenting it in her hyperrealistic style in various stages of completion.

My first possible request, then, would be anything by Cayce Zavaglia.

Zavaglia’s Instagram account not only features her work in progress, it also includes images of her current inspirations as an artist. A few months ago, she posted the image below on the right, of a red-haired dandy, which leads me to my next possible choice of a loan. That portrait of a wealthy, privileged man — yet clearly altered so that the colors and his appearance are jacked up — will not leave my head. Zavaglia’s commenters identified the 17th C. original from which the red-head was drawn: Portrait of a Young Man of the Chigi Family by Jacob Ferdinand Voet, which you see below on the left. 

So Zavaglia was inspired by the jacked-up portrait, which was done by a disabled artist named Terri Bowden, and Bowden based her work on the original done by Voet, and, well, the whole business of art paying itself forward feels right and just. A blog named Disparate Minds explains Bowden’s approach thusly:

In her boldly marked drawings, Terri Bowden portrays…figures as if they are intense, strikingly present memories – fleshy and visceral in some aspects, but broadly summarized, distorted, and surreal in others. Faces are rendered with a realism and clarity that evokes vulnerability, re-contextualizing familiar icons of distant pop culture with a mysterious, untold narrative. 

It’s the business of “re-contextualizing familiar icons of distant pop culture” that comes across strongly for me in the red-haired Chigi portrait. That dandy in Bowden’s painting is club-ready — his colors vivid and unreal in a way that makes me feel like I want to get dizzy under a disco ball with him.

In other words, I wouldn’t mind that face hanging on the wall in the living room.

Also arresting to my eyes are the narrative quilts of Faith Ringgold, best known as the author of the children’s book Tar Beach. On her website, there is an FAQ section; one of my favorite moments on that page is this:

Do you do all your books on the criticism of black people? 
Like all artists and writers, I am both enriched and limited by what I know and have experienced. In other words my books and my art are based on my life’s experience. I am, as you know, a black woman in America.

I also appreciate this overview of her work and views, as explained on Artsy:

A fervent civil rights and gender equality activist, Faith Ringgold has produced an inherently political oeuvre. In the early 1970s, she abandoned traditional oils for painting in acrylic on unstretched canvas with fabric borders, a technique evoking Tibetan thangkas (silk paintings with embroidery). The painted narrative quilts for which Ringgold is best known grew out of these early paintings, and denounce racism and discrimination with their subject matter. Combining quilt making, genre painting, and story telling through images and hand-written texts, the series “The American Collection” (1997) endeavors to rewrite African American art history, emphasizing the importance of family, roots, and artistic collaboration. In addition to demonstrating against the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney over what she perceives to be their exclusion of black and female artists, Ringgold has co-founded groups to support these demographics.

Below, you can see a few options that I would weigh, were I to request a loan of one of Ringgold’s quilts. On the left is Josephine Baker’s Bananas, in the middle is Who’s Bad?, and on the right is Echoes of Harlem

Another possible request for a loan might be this next piece, Trolleyed, by Debbie Smyth, whose work is described as “statement thread drawings” by Thread Week:

 …these playful yet sophisticated contemporary artworks are created by stretching a network of threads between accurately plotted pins. Her work beautifully blurs the boundaries between fine art drawings and textile art, flat and 3D work, illustration and embroidery, literally lifting the drawn line off the page in a series of “pin and thread” drawings.

The mixture of strong lines with messy ends feels a bit like looking in a mirror, to be honest. That this work manages to be both complicated and spare is another achievement I appreciate in all arts. Capping off my positive reaction to this shopping cart is that it’s an everyday thing — not some fancy 17th C. dude ready to go to the club but, rather, an item we all have touched, pushed, and used for its practicality. I look at Smyth’s cart, and it feels familiar; it feels tangled; it feels real; it feels fanciful. It feels like it should come hang on my kitchen wall.

Okay, the next contender for a letter from Jocelyn that opens with “Dear Artist I Admire: Could I show up with a pick-up truck and tote off one of your pieces…” is a Ghaniain man named El Anatsui who is, according to the Jack Shainman gallery:

well-known for large scale sculpture composed of thousands of folded and crumpled pieces of metal sourced from local alcohol recycling stations and bound together with copper wire. These intricate works, which can grow to be massive in scale, are both luminous and weighty, meticulously fabricated yet malleable.

Anatsui’s works feel like chain mail quilts, and I’m pretty sure I should hang one next to the bed so that I have something to look at when I can’t sleep at 4 a.m.

Awwwright, with these next ones, I’m going straight-on classic as I consider borrowing the paintings of Artemisia Gentileschi. Even though she produced in the 17th C., the controlled, bloodthirsty female rage in Judith Slaying Holofernes, Jael and Sisera, and Salome with the Head of John the Baptist feels pointedly relevant in today’s #metoo watershed, particularly if the paintings are viewed as a kind of autobiography — in which Gentileschi has painted herself as the murdering female exacting vengeance upon her abuser. Famously, Gentileschi was raped by a teacher/mentor, and if you’d like to know what that guy looked like, take a gander at the face of Holofernes, bleeding out on the bed.

 I like this article in The Guardian that asks: 

Artemisia Gentileschi turned the horrors of her own life – repression, injustice, rape – into brutal biblical paintings that were also a war cry for oppressed women. Why has her extraordinary genius been overlooked? 

Again coincidentally, I had collaged these three paintings the day before the Obama portraits were unveiled, a day before Twitter erupted with opinions and tweets about every last detail, including outrage (from some) that one of the artists, Kehinde Wiley, has previously painted images of black women holding the severed heads of white women. In some beautiful Twitter moments, swells of art lovers directed the outraged to some basic art history — including various iterations of Judith slaying Holofernes — and explained to those who can’t fathom why a black woman holding a white woman’s head is a powerful fucking statement and not just “awful” that there is this thing where artistic pieces resonate over hundreds of years, and artists reference previous works in a way that adds layers to their new creations. I also appreciated those who posted art works in which black people are abused, dismembered, lynched, murdered, and oppressed and asked where the outrage had been when they were produced.

In summary: I am newly passionate about Artemisia Gentileschi because Trump is president, black lives matter, and sexual assault is no longer cause for a woman to feel she is at fault. COME TO ME, ARTEMISIA. I’d like to hang your work in the home of a woman I know who told her daughter “You made that all up” when she read her girl’s written account of the sexual harrassments she has experienced during her lifetime. 

Now that I’ve been crabby about mothers who have internalized misogyny to the point that they are unable to be allies to their daughters, can we look at more quilts? The story quilts made by Malawian Billie Zangewa literally center a black woman, and they do it in a way that’s intimate, real, and human, focusing as they do on frozen moments from the artist’s life. In a quilt hanging in a museum (OR MY HALLWAY), do I want to see kitchen appliances plugged into an outlet? Yes, yes, I do. Do I want to see the pipe running from the artist’s bathroom sink in one of her pieces? Yes, yes, I do.

An article from True Africa provides more insights into Zangewa and what she does:

You do all your own stitching for your intricate silk tapestries. Can you tell us about the process?

I start off with an experience that elicits an emotion. The emotion then inspires an image that examines and narrates the experience. From here I do my visual research and then the template drawing. This is followed by cutting and pinning and then finally, the sewing.

It’s a very lengthy process and it all has to come together in the drawing phase otherwise I experience problems later on in the process. I have also learnt to allow my intuition to tell me what order things must be cut and pinned in. Previously, I would go from left to right or visa versa but the intuitive approach is more exciting and rewarding.

There’s been a lot of discussion on representation of black women in arts and culture. Do you find it empowering to portray yourself in your work as an African and black woman?

Absolutely. I am using my own image and body to tell my story. What could be more empowering than that?

Fortunately, my house has endless capacity when it comes to space on the walls for great art, which means I would like to borrow at least ten portraits painted by Missoula artist Tim Nielson (who also happens to be a friend, so you fuck wid him, you fuck wid me), filling all remaining hanging space with his vigorous, glorious, no-bullshittery patterns and shadows. If you follow him on Facebook, you’ll see that Tim chooses to paint people who deserve greater representation, and, truth be told, many times I don’t initially know the histories of his subjects. Fortunately, researching them teaches me much and gets my head to a place where I can start to see how Florynce Kennedy, Emma Goldman, John Brown, and St. James Hampton, for instance, are interrelated contributors to vision, activism, and constructive anarchy. 

With Tim’s portraits filling my house, I’d have to shout at least once a day, “OKAY, BITCHES, LET’S OVERTHROW SOME SHIT!”

While my yells might scare the neighbors during windows-open season, who knows: some of them might get inspired.

And before you know it, look

Something happened.

Art changed the world.

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Seven in Fifty-One: Saturday, February 17

This afternoon, Allegra, friend Linda, and I drove through several flat, soul-sucking towns, braving the border of Wisconsin, so that we could participate in a race across a frozen bay in Lake Superior. Approximately 4,000 skiers, snowshoers, and runners take part each year in this night-time race, lit only by luminaries and the frigid tears dotting participants’ cheeks.

During our time in the car, I asked Linda to consider what she knows now, at age 51, that she didn’t know at, say, age 10. Put another way: what about her life now would surprise her younger self?

Reflecting, Linda noted that her 10-year-old self would never have known these things:

1. That her “new friend,” a pen pal she started writing to when she was eight, would, 43 years later, still be her “Numero Uno” — the two of them linked in an effortless friendship. Even more, Linda’s younger self would never have predicted how much time and effort they would would put into each other over the years.

2. That grown-ups have problems and issues and haven’t reached a point where they have it all figured out and are living on easy cruise control. Linda’s younger self was certain adults were never petty or vindictive or engaged in negative interactions. Linda’s older self knows better and is happy to realize that the adult experience is one of growing, changing, and adapting. In the past five years, she’s learned so much — about relationships, for example, and what they should and shouldn’t be. It was only as she neared the half-century mark that Linda understood a person can be independent and still be in a relationship.

3. That time will keep on trippin’, trippin’, trippin’, into the future. At 51, Linda is extremely aware of the passage of time, of her parents’ aging, her oldest nephew heading off to college, her former teachers looking crinkled and “super old.” This awareness doesn’t make Linda sad, per se, but more in awe that time continues to march on, marveling at how things just keep on keepin’ on. Even more, she feels finely attuned to the cycle of birth and death and growth. Although she recalls that this awareness began to develop in the 6th grade, it was when the nephew to whom she used to read Curious George Makes Pancakes left home for college that she realized those moments with him on her lap still feel like yesterday.

When no one’s on her lap, Linda jumps on hay bales.

4. That she would become a social worker. When Linda was 10, she was sure she’d be a nurse — never considering other possibilities — starting college in pre-nursing and then moving towards a nursing degree…at which point she promptly decided nursing was not for her, mostly due to the chemistry and math. Compounding her worries about the classes was her low self-confidence, which caused her to run the other way at the first sign of failure. After nursing, she moved to classes in teaching…until, thanks to poor attendance, she failed out. Eventually, Linda got sober and at that point understood she had a desire to finish her degree. In thinking about which classes had suited her best in her previous academic career, she realized psychology and sociology had resonated. As a result, Linda ended up majoring in sociology; after receiving her bachelor’s degree, one thing was clear: she didn’t feel done learning yet. Rather, she felt like she was just getting started, primed to go further. A couple years later, Linda finished graduate school with an MSW and became a social worker. Her work with the elderly and ill now draws upon her abilities to listen with compassion and without judgment, to empathize with all people, and to affect lives on a personal level. For 51-year-old Linda, the definition of successful work isn’t a life where she’s recording vitals but, instead, when she gets home and thinks, “I really made that individual’s or family’s day better.”

5. That she would mature into someone who doesn’t care what other people think — that she is all good if she makes her own decisions, takes care of her own business, and keeps her eyes on her own paper.

6. That “stale” isn’t the intended taste for crackers. It was only when Linda got old enough to move out of her parents’ house and started to buy her own food that she experienced the sensation of “fresh” when it comes to crackers.

7. That she, a woman who once crumpled when faced with a challenge, might one day ski 10 kilometers across a frozen bay in the pitch dark, and that, as she skied, a strange man would glide into her personal space and yell at her obscured face “STEVE? STEVE?” And when she thought to herself, “Well, I’m not Steve, so I’m just going to keep going,” the man would try again: “STEVE?” Despite the violation of her focused rhythm, she would continue to stride — until he got in real close-like and hollered “STEVE, IS THAT YOU?” which would cause her to finally respond, “No, I’m not Steve,” and in that moment of taking her eyes off her lane, her concentration would be lost to the point that she stumbled and went down in a flail of limbs. Although at least one of Linda’s future friends wished she had grabbed the yelling man’s hands and placed them on her breasts while responding “NO, I’M LINDA,” she didn’t mess with him. And 51-year-old Linda, fully in charge of herself, didn’t cry, nor did she linger on the ice for dramatic impact, as a 10-year-old might. No. Instead, she hopped up, gripped her poles, and clapped her eyes on the tracks set by those who had gone before. Pushing, striding, looking forward to what lay ahead, she carried on, propelling herself through the dusky quarter-light to the finish line.

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Seven GIFs in Five: Friday, February 16

“There’s something about her face that makes her seem a little evil,” I told Byron as Aliona Savchenko and Bruno Massot glided onto the ice, readying themselves for their freeskate. “Don’t get me wrong: I love her nose and chin; they work together in a way that’s really arresting. But in my casting, I can’t help it: she’s always a villain.”

Although this patter was a legitimate expression of important things on my mind, my subconscious was probably trying to make the goings-on on the screen more interesting to Byron, traditionally a reluctant watcher of skating. This year, he’s been better able to hang in there during skating coverage, progressing to the point where he can yell “TWIZZLE SEQUENCE” when I quiz him about what dance pairs are doing. For a guy who, a year ago, called footwork sequences “prancing,” this ability to recognize what he’s seeing is a big advance. When I pet his knee and compliment him on Being a Better Skating Fan, he acknowledges, “I can remember ‘twizzle sequence’ because it reminds me of candy.”

Whatever works, pal. I can only remember what Mercutio does in Romeo and Juliet because his name sounds like “mercury” which is what’s inside old-school thermometers, and thermometers are shaped like tiny swords plus, also, if you get a really high fever, you can die. 

In case I haven’t mentioned it lately, you totally should take one of my literature classes.

As Byron and I stared at the screen for the next five minutes, not only were we assessing Savchenko’s face, we also were witnessing a truly fine program, every move executed to perfection, each partner hitting all the marks. For me, this was a relief after Massot had doubled a triple in the short program a few days before, putting him in the doghouse with the villainess in charge. It was his error that had them entering the final skate in fourth position, his role as “lesser skater” in the duo that rendered him the supplicant, his every posture one of “I hope I can be good enough, so she doesn’t lock me in the freezer again.”

At the end of their performance, both Massot and Savchenko knew it had gone well — they knew they had a shot at a medal better than the two bronzes Savchenko had won in previous Olympics with a different partner. They had been flawless. Now, it was a waiting game.

They watched the Canadians (who had already won a gold medal at these Olympics in the team competition). They watched the Chinese (who were in the lead before the freeskate). They watched, wincing along with the world, the Russians, whose music and costume choices caused even my friend Johnny Weir to crawl under his chair (“Nobody loves Christina Aguilera more than I do, but this pair is a little square to be giving us ‘Candyman’ realness”) and my other friend Leslie Jones to hurl costume-hate at her screen about “…that fuckery polk-a-dot shit…”.

Through each successive performance, they waited.

It’s the waiting done by Savchenko and Massot that has us all gathered here today. 

Because, my guys, their nerves-on-edge, twitching-like-they-were-jonesing, hearts-in-throat, second-stage-of-labor postures were something to see — better even than their spectacular triple twist, which Savchenko landed as softly as a young Massot creeping out of the freezer after she locked him in for boofing his prancing.

Oh, yes, for both Byron and me the other night, it was their wait that deserved the gold.

Never before in the history of the Kiss ‘N Cry had viewers been privy to the artistry and technique that went into this pairs’ use of —

introduced in 1924

originally intended only for removing cold cream

but later moving into a more diverse role as a receptacle for 

sneezes, coughs, and

the snot and tears of champions —

The Kleenex.

Ladies, gentlemen, and the non-binary gendered, I present to you now a story of triumph and joy told in seven GIFs featuring some of Massot and Savchenko’s finest work. Before you watch: grab a tissue.

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